When I was a kid, I was spoon-fed the Myth of America. You know the one. It tells us that America is the land of opportunity. The land of the free. The place where anyone could become anything. Where a boy could be born in poverty in a log cabin, where he was so poor he had to walk to school barefoot, but where could still rise to be the leader of the nation if only he worked hard enough. That Myth. America was not perfect, we knew. We made some mistakes—slavery, for example. The long, dark period where women couldn't vote, for another. But given time, we always righted the wrongs, both here and abroad. Maybe it took time. Maybe it wasn't easy. But it got done. And anyone could be anything, if they were willing to work hard.
In a deleted scene from my currently on-query project, a character argues that America has become less a meritocracy and more of a feudal society, where wealth and opportunity is increasingly handed down from generation to generation, and people are more likely to become rags-to-riches stories by hitting the lottery or going viral (not always for the right reasons) than they are by studying and working hard. He points out the increasing entry of dynasties into politics (Kennedys, Bushes and, maybe, Clintons), sports (Hulls, Bonds, Mannings) and entertainment (Smiths, Coppolas), where wealth and power gained by parents have allowed the children to either pursue their dreams free of the fear of failure, or provide them with the leg up needed to succeed. Meanwhile, he notes, it becomes harder for others to gain entry into the club. Mobility, he says, is dead.
This idea seems to be in evidence all over. Statistics have suggested mobility in America has decreased over time. In his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves suggests that not only has upward mobility been stifled, so has downward mobility. Reeves argues that the top-most economic classes (in this case, the top 20%, not the fabled 1%) have constructed a glass floor to keep themselves—and their children—from falling out of the upper classes.That they are using their money and status and connections to engage in 'opportunity hoarding.'
After watching the 'college cheating scandal' blow up last week, this seems more evident than ever. If you have not been paying attention, a federal investigation turned up an operation in which parents paid a middleman to get their children into top colleges, either by cheating on college entrance exams or by bribing coaches into falsely recruiting the kids for their athletic teams. Said the mastermind of the operation, "I created a side door."
What boggles my mind in all this are two things: first, that the parents did not apparently trust in their own children's abilities to get into these schools (though after seeing the video made by daughter of privilege, Olivia Jade, maybe they were right not to trust her). Second, couldn't the gobs and gobs of money spent on getting their kids into school be better spent on, I don't know, tutors? Better prep schools? Test prep classes? According to a story in The New York Times, parents were paying between $15,000 and $75,000 per cheated test. Another paid $1.2 million—million!—to get their kid into Yale. Are these schools really that good? If you have that kind of money to drop on faking your way into school, does your kid really need that kind of education? Hell, if you're dropping a mil on Yale, why not set up an endowment or use it as seed money to outfit a residence hall with geothermal or something? Why not at least let that money benefit others as well as your own kid?
As a parent, I want my kids to have a better life than I had growing up (and mine was pretty good), and to be well-positioned for success as they enter adulthood. It is, really, what any parent wants. This cheating scandal, however, is a direct example of what Reeves called opportunity hoarding, taken to the extreme. We all recognize that wealth has its privileges. This is not a simple privilege. This is not just stacking the deck. This is outright thievery, thievery that denied actual deserving students of opportunity, an opportunity to be anything.